Suit: North Dakota refinery developer owes workers wages

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By The Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Some current and former employees of a company developing an oil refinery near Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota filed a lawsuit claiming they are owed wages and bonuses.

Meridian Energy Group first proposed the refinery just 3 miles (5 kilometers) from the park in 2016, with the goal of having it operating by next year. However, the project has been beset by funding and legal setbacks. Last year, CEO William Prentice told The Associated Press that the company had delayed the refinery's startup until 2022.

The employees' lawsuit, filed last week in Texas, says that starting in spring 2018, Meridian “began to sporadically defer payment of weekly payroll to employees due to alleged financial woes.” The company, in an effort to keep employees working, said it would reward them with yet-to-be paid bonuses, according to the lawsuit, which was first reported Monday by Bismarck blogger Jim Fuglie.

Five former and two current employees of Meridian Energy Group, including its operations manager, filed the lawsuit. Five of the people suing live in Texas and the other two live in Minnesota, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit seeks nearly $607,000 in “economic damages,” attorney fees and a jury trial.

Calls to the company and to operations manager Todd Tooley, who lives in Minnesota and is suing his company for nearly $193,000, were not immediately returned Tuesday.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is North Dakota's top tourist attraction with more than 700,000 visitors annually. Environmental groups argue pollution from the factory will spoil scenery and air quality at the 30,000-acre (12,000-hectare) park.

The company has said the project will be the “cleanest refinery on the planet” and a model for environmentally friendly technology.

The company has said the project is expected to cost about $1 billion. Securities filings show Meridian has raised only about 9% of the project’s costs to date.

St. Paul, Minnesota-based SEH Design/Build last year filed a $2.18 million lien, alleging it has not been paid for site preparation work. The company said at the time that payments were being made on the lien but would not disclose the amount.

The lawsuit comes about three weeks after the North Dakota Supreme Court removed one obstacle for the project when it sided with state regulators in a challenge to the company’s air quality permit to build the facility.